This International Day of Education there is still much progress to be made

Education is a fundamental part of sustainability. Indeed, the UN places “Quality Education” as its fourth Sustainable Development Goal. As education lays the foundation for growth and innovation, the UN holds it as a priority for sustainable development alongside peace.

Globally, 258 million children do not attend school, and many more lack access to consistent and quality learning. Despite the majority having access to education, 617 million children are still unable to perform basic mathematics and are illiterate. In 2017 nearly four million refugee children were out of education.

If these shortcomings aren’t addressed, they can have far-reaching consequences. In 2016, the UN reported 750 million adults – of which two-thirds are women – were illiterate.

To take note of and help address some of these concerns, 2022’s UN International Day of Education has the theme of “Changing Course, Transforming Education”, to ensure that across the world education becomes more accessible, resilient and strategic to equip individuals with all the skills and knowledge necessary to face the specific challenges they will need to overcome in the future.

Why does education matter?

Receiving a quality education has been identified as a key factor in children’s upward social mobility and escape from poverty. Higher levels of education have also been linked with increased financial independence, and a greater ability to generate wealth and engage in economic activity. Beyond education itself, schools can also provide important social services, such as free meals, childcare and welfare support.

Failing to provide a quality education for children can limit their ability to access future opportunities and care for themselves independently. A lack of education is often a barrier to professional work, for example. Another consequence is that individuals lacking education may not be engaged with key global issues such a social inequality and climate change. Without engagement in those areas, the capacity to act is limited and unsustainable practices are more likely to continue.

Where does the work begin?

Global education is limited by two key factors: access and quality.

A number of barriers exist to access, the largest being gender inequality. Only two-thirds of developing nations have achieved gender parity in primary schools. In its Education 2030 strategy, UNESCO highlights that gender equality is “inextricably linked” to the promotion of the right to education and estimates roughly 16 million girls globally will go through life without entering a classroom.

Other limitations include lack of resources for students to facilitate learning. While this is largely an issue in the developing world, as families may lack the financial resources for books, school transport, meals, or to keep their children out of work, it also extends to developed nations. During the pandemic, the lack of access to connected devices such as computers or tablets has massively limited students’ access to online learning. This gap has been labelled “the digital divide” and is linked socio-economic inequality and the rural-urban divide.

The quality of education is also under threat. Materially, the pandemic has limited contact-hours and student engagement, and placed extreme pressure on teaching staff all around the world. In addition to disruptions, some schools are also suffering from censorship, and the repealing of their curriculums and special educational needs services.

The Ongoing Pandemic

The recent increases in Covid-19 cases has led to another wave of school closures globally, prompting fears that inconsistent education will continue to negatively affect students’ futures. As a result of disruptions to learning, the World Bank estimates that levels of learning poverty – a standard assessed by the proportion of 10 year-old children able to read a basic text – could stand as high as 70% in low- and middle-income nations. A McKinsey report has shown that even in developed nations like the US, primary school children were roughly five months behind in reading and maths at the end of the 2020/2021 academic year, with students of colour and low-income students suffering the worst.

A World Bank report from January 2021 labelled Covid-19 “the worst crisis to education and learning in a century”. This concern has been echoed by institutions around the world. In response to the pandemic, the UN updated the Sustainable Development Goal for Quality Education to acknowledge the setbacks incurred due to the pandemic: in April 2020, close to 1.6 billion children were out of school, and 500 million students were unable to access remote learning services.

Effects further down the line

Children’s education has been a key target for improvement due to the knock-on effects the lack of an education has on further development and access to professional work. Without a primary and secondary education to build on, students will not have the foundational knowledge to access higher education. Without higher education, many will be barred from well-paid professional careers. A survey by the Association of Colleges showed 60% of SMEs believe there is a skills gap for entry-level employees and recent graduates.

This is a particular risk for individuals from low-economic backgrounds who cannot afford extra-curricular support for their learning.

It’s important to note that educational support and the benefits of education can also be invaluable for adults. For some this may be through support in gaining educational qualifications through financial support or flexible working. Beyond this, workplaces can also provide opportunities for additional technical and professional training to ensure workers are experts in their field and are equipped for rapidly changing challenges, like climate change, technological innovation or the evolving needs of the workforce.

This International Day of Education, there is plenty of room for businesses to have a significant positive impact on future lives across all aspects of society by supporting the UN’s goal for quality education.